#CampaignLife

by Morgan Luther

Chances are, if you are reading this you have gone through a breakup – a bad breakup.  Most are.  The kind that shuts throws you into a fit of depression, breaks apart friend groups like the plot of Interstellar, and leaves you frazzled and unable to pull your life together for weeks on end.  Maybe it drove you into a new-re-found professional wrestling fan, a fit of alcoholism, or whatever.

I’ve been there.  Thrice.       

This is a series of short thoughts that may help explain why, on November 5th, 2014, at around 1:30 AM EST I ended up eating a McChicken™ on top of a slice of cold Little Ceasers™ sausage pizza, then falling asleep on the floor of my office in Little Havana covered in warm tears and warm Modelo™.  But it wasn’t because I went through a breakup, it was worse.

It starts in the Republic of China.  Not the communist one.  The China colloquially referred to as, “Taiwan.”  Alongside some of the brightest young adults I have ever met, I was participating in a three-week fellowship with the Republic of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  We were on our chartered bus, cruising up the east coast of Taiwan – peering out into the Pacific Ocean.  One of the Fellows and I hit it off, he was working on a campaign in Florida.  We talked, and somehow my resume ended up in the hands of my future boss, and future good friend.

My last few days in Taiwan, I came down with (albeit, undiagnosed) salmonella poisoning.  This was a major bummer, the girl I am in love with and one of my best friends in the world, both of whom live in Taiwan, were setting time aside to hang out with me – and I could barely stand up.  After a few feverish dreams, a couple misguided nights out in Taipei, some World Cup matches, and a Jack Daniels induced blurry flight later – I was back on my couch in Minneapolis, mindlessly viewing episode after episode of Law & Order: SVU.  Then I received a phone call.  After a couple interviews, I took a gig working as a Field Organizer on the Charlie Crist for Governor campaign (you know, the guy with the fan).  I had to move out of Minneapolis and to Miami in 72 hours.

On leaving.

I had lunch with one of my ex-girlfriends the other day.  She’s something else, a talented vocalist, a talented visual artist, and a real old soul – whatever that means.  She’s my last real girlfriend, and the one I would write songs about if I were the lead in an emo “revival” band.  It was the first time I saw her since Valentine’s Day last year, when she was going through some things, and somehow that led her to my doorstep while I was binge watching through season two of House of Cards.  This lunch though was Sunday, this past Sunday, at the Modern Times in Minneapolis – a quaint post-punk spot, where the walls are tattooed with contemporary art and the employees are decorated with contemporary art.  We were catching up, as friendly as resentful exes can be. 

“Are you planning on staying in Minneapolis for a while?”

“I think I’ll be leaving for D.C. or New York soon.”

With a cold gaze, “You were always good at leaving.”

I wasn’t always good at leaving – in fact I would argue that I’m still rather bad at it.  And I’m sure most of my exes would agree, and probably her – if she thought more to it.  I went to undergrad within one hundred miles of my hometown, hardly leaving what I’d known.  There, I put off my semester abroad in Tokyo just about as long as I possibly could.  When I moved out of Tokyo, I got a bit tipsy and mindlessly rode the train around my favorite routes one last time, just to feel there and not gone.

This time I just kind of left.  I hadn’t thought about it.  Fresh out of undergrad, just home from a six-week trip through Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, and I already had a job offer in my field.  I had been Stateside just long enough for a couple nights out and one trip to the grocery store.  I still hadn’t seen most of my close friends from college, whose graduation parties and life events I had missed being away in Asia.  I matched with a long-time crush on Tinder (I know.), and finally had an “in” to offer her a drink.  I had pet snakes, Eden and Ekans, who I hung out with daily (and miss dearly).  And I still hadn’t spent time with my parents.

I packed up everything, which for me wasn’t much, without saying goodbye to anyone other than my roommates.  And I drove.  Alone.  I made the 28 hours of drive time in 36 hours.  Total.

There’s something special about driving cross-country in solitude.  It has to it a violent aura of sorrow unlike any other.  Taking a plane is easy: waiting in line forever to get through the TSA – which in itself is intimate, spending your last thirty minutes before boarding sipping a Bloody Mary or mindlessly staring at a newsstand, holding on to the faint hope you might see someone famous.  Then boarding a tight, cramped space with two or five hundred other people, all with their own stories and almost always trying to tell you about it.  There’s nothing lonely about flying.  It’s more like an orgy. 

But driving alone, away from everyone you know, past the flatlands and into the mountains then out, passing vast metropolitans and blinking past gas station towns… in a way it’s almost like being lost in a one of H.P. Lovecraft’s forests.  It echoes, but something tells you there’s more out there.

In less than two days, I was in Miami.  I didn’t know a soul in South Florida, and I had never seen the Atlantic so blue.

For the next four and a half months I worked 70-80 hours a week.  But with 70-80 hours a week, and more spent on the commute, I didn’t even have time to swipe right on Tinder™.

I knew that going in.  It wasn’t good at leaving, I just didn’t think about it.

On US 1.

According to Wikipedia, “U.S. Route 1 (US 1) is a major north-south U.S. Highway that serves the East Coast of the United States. It runs 2,369 miles from Fort Kent, Maine, at the Canadian border, south to Key West, Florida, making it the longest north-south road in the United States.”

US 1 has a lot of history.  In fact, once, a New York City bus driver stole his route’s bus and drove all the way to South Florida down US 1.  It is a key trucking route, and prior to President Eisenhower’s development of the interstate highway system, this was the road connecting the Yankees to the South.

But US 1 is hell.  Hell filled with bumper-to-bumper traffic, lined with palm trees and gas stations, overshadowed by the single Metrorail line in southern Miami-Dade, laughing like Aku in Samurai Jack.  When Northerners joke, “Florida is where people go to die,” I immediately think of US 1 as Purgatory.

For most of the campaign, my personal efforts were split between two offices.  One in Little Havana, smack on Calle Ocho – and largely the reason I ended up putting on five pounds during the campaign (shout out to Mi Rinconcito – best burritos).  The other was in North Pinecrest, very posh, very white (which is unique for Miami-Dade County).  These two offices weren’t all that far apart.  Only about 10 miles, depending on how you measure.  Nine miles of that though, is on US 1.

Except for very late at night, there is always traffic in Miami.  Every time I needed to travel between these two offices, I would be lucky to make the US 1 stretch in less than forty-five minutes.  If it was raining, which it often does in Miami, it could take up to an hour and a half.  I spent at least one, usually two, sometimes three hours commuting on US 1 each day.  I spent time on US 1 getting from my supportive housing to my office, or from my office to my supportive housing.  I spent even more time on US 1 as I would bounce in and out of my turf.

US 1 became my best friend.  I talked to her.  She listened.  I discovered my new favorite podcasts with her.  When a few of my soon-to-be albums of the year came out, we listened to them together.  We shared the same Starbucks.  During my bi-weekly calls to my parents, she was right there listening with me.

Her and I became like lovers.  I would whisper her the secrets I was unable to tell even my interns.  When I found out that President Clinton was visiting, I told her late at night, as I kissed her goodbye, on the way to Key Biscayne for my Friday evening cigar.  When reports of the mail ballot count came in, and things were looking good, we celebrated together and she took me to the nearest Flannigan’s™ for late night happy hour with my colleagues.  On my way to a Sunday morning church visit, I told her about how I overheard that the First Lady would be in town a few days later, and how jealous we were that neither of us could go.  I told her about the beautiful girl that made my heart flutter at the Wynwood Art Walk and how stupid I was for not taking my chance to talk to her.  She told me I didn't have the time to date her anyway.  We practiced Spanish together as we passed streets named, “San Sovino,” “Viera,” and “Ponce De Leon.”  When my air conditioning blew out, I rolled down the windows as my sweat dripped upon her like a honeymoon.   Once, in the final weeks before the campaign, I was running late to an event with our candidate – I still had to prepare some materials.  Stop and go traffic with her, I tethered my phone to my computer, and did my work during the stops between the gos.  She stopped just enough to get me there on time, and I prepped the necessary documents.

But like any highway, US 1 was cheating on me.

As Election Day grew closer, signs celebrating the incumbent began to pop up.  She dressed her median in opposition yard signs, and draped her shoulders in slanderous billboards.  I stopped traveling her as much, as my Deputy managed the further of the two offices in my absence.  A week or so after the election, I made my way down to Key West.  She smiled, like nothing had changed, and embraced my three-hour trip to the southernmost point of the continental United States.  When I arrived, towards the end of the Keys, balloons bordered one of the larger opposition signs – as if she picked the winner.

On interns.

You were my five saviors.  I am indebted.

On Julio.

I don’t speak Spanish.   Not more than enough to order food or ask for directions.

Julio was a super-volunteer.  He worked with my colleague, who managed much of Allapattah and Little Havana.  Julio spoke no English, at all.

Every morning when Julio was in, he would stand up and give me the broadest of smiles.  He would greet me in Spanish, and hug me like I was his grandson or nephew.  Then he would get back to it, making phone calls to our Spanish lists, urging people to get out and vote.  He never used a script, he just used his heart.

When it was time to leave, Julio and my colleague would exchange stories in Spanish.  Then he would come up to me, express his regards, and give me the firmest of handshakes – holding on to my forearm with his free hand.

Julio volunteered a few times a week.

He rode the bus, two hours each way, to make phone calls to strangers.

On sacrifice.

He was from out of state.  His grandmother was dying during the campaign.  A few days after Election Day, he saw her again at her funeral.

She worked two jobs to get by - on top of her campaign fellowship.  She quit a job to spend more time volunteering with us.

He was a Miami native.  He had a girlfriend, and they couldn’t work through everything with his hours.  They broke up.  His dog died the next week.

She asked for leave from her job to take a campaign spot as a temp, they fired her instead.

He was offered an interview for a position at the White House.  He couldn’t take off a date that near to the election to fly to D.C.

On the man who couldn’t read.

One of my favorite parts about being an organizer is that I got to work with people.  I like people.  I would spend a few afternoons each week, on my own, going door to door of assumed supporters and updating their voter registration, their absentee ballot request forms, and confirming their support for my candidate and my party.  They would tell me about their families and their neighborhood; sometimes I would get offered lemonade, sometimes I would get offered hard lemonade.  Being a Democrat, it should be no surprise that much of this work was done in student neighborhoods - as well as within impoverished communities.        

My favorite neighborhood to go to was Southwest Coconut Grove, a historical incorporated neighborhood in Miami, about four miles away from the University of Miami.  The Southwest Grove is predominantly African-American and Bohemian, with a good portion of it being historically impoverished.  I saw more than one handgun as the sun set, and was offered crack cocaine on more than one occasion.  Mind you, the neighborhood is nowhere near as dangerous as some parts of Miami-Dade, such as Overtown – but it still had a certain stigma that seemed to scare a few of the more posh locals.  I loved it though.  It was real America.  I share a common ancestry with many of these people; instead of the blood of settlers, we have the blood of kings.  It’s a kind of Americana.  Lots of those families could trace their lineage to the first free black families in the South.  I was working for them, and with them.

One Saturday afternoon in mid-September, I was out on the doors in the Southwest Grove.  Doing my route, on a block I had yet to canvass, I saw an older African-American gentlemen swaying his rocking chair on the porch, just looking out into the neighborhood and listening to the distant hum of the weekend rush hour.

The man wasn’t on my walk list, but being a Democrat in a largely favorable neighborhood, there was a good chance he would receive me.  So I approached.  The daily paper laid in his yard, and I asked if he wanted me to bring it up to him.  “No thank ya, nee my exercise.”  We shared some greetings, and I told him I was there working for the Democrats.  He lit up, and bragged to me that he has voted in every election since he turned 18.  He went on about how he remembered his dad couldn’t vote for FDR in 1936 because they couldn’t afford the poll tax, and how every time he voted he did so for his father (who passed before the next election – when it was abolished).  This year was different for him.  He was older, he said, and he could not leave his house. So, I helped him fill out a vote by mail request form.

It took a while.  Sometimes, with older individuals, it takes a while.  They like to chitchat, ask questions, and assure to themselves that I am not an undercover Republican operative (an issue that allegedly happens a lot in impoverished South Florida neighborhoods).

He filled out the form to the best of his ability – but I had to point out where to write his address and his name, where to sign, where to date.

At the bottom of our forms, there was a receipt of sorts, where I would leave my name and contact information above some legal print with information about the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections.  I handed it back to him and expressed my regards.  He began to read it – upside down.

That’s when it hit me.  He had memorized his legal information, in a stroke order, not as words or as letters.

I have seen some dark things in my life.  I once watched a stranger die of alcohol poisoning on the streets of Tokyo, paramedics trying to resuscitate him as his girlfriend wailed.  I once drove past a motorcycle accident, where a truck hit the bike head on – and more than one of the man’s appendages had been torn from his body. I’ve worked with impoverished communities, I’ve worked with veterans, and I’ve worked with single moms just trying to get by.

For some reason though, nothing has ever crushed me like this.

Every time I went back to the neighborhood, once or twice a week, I would stop at his house and he would tell me stories.  He told me of the lynchings of his friends in his younger years.  He told me of how he felt when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  He told me how he still was in disbelief that he lived to see a black president. 

 I once asked him how he could read the newspaper.  He told me he didn’t; his wife had a subscription.  She died earlier this year.  He used the paper as firewood.

On the woman with no legs.

In South Miami, there is a rough couple blocks.  I was out there, one Sunday afternoon in early October, doing what I do best – talking to people. 

I knocked on one of the doors on my list, and was told to come in after identifying whom I worked for.  The first thing I noticed was a console television from the early 90’s playing a rerun of Sanford & Sons.  The woman who beckoned me was in her wheelchair in the shadows.

The woman in the wheelchair had no legs.  I asked her about it – she had something.  It was treatable, but without insurance it was not.  That’s why she invited me in, because I was working for the candidate who believed in the kind of insurance she needed.

The woman with no legs and I talked for a while.  We talked about the neighborhood, which I had grown to know very well.  She had been in South Florida all her life.  Like the man who couldn’t read, she shared stories with me.  She told me she had a son.  He died a few months earlier.  Her congregation was supportive, but she doesn’t get many visitors anymore. 

When I was leaving, she thanked me for giving her something to smile about.

On loss.

I don’t remember what time it was called or who called it.  But we lost - by 64,145 votes of the 5,951,561 votes cast.  A few of us were at one of our offices.

A lot happened shortly thereafter; some conference calls, talks of a recount possibility, etc.  After a couple of hours, it was confirmed.

I thought of the man who couldn’t read, I thought of Julio, I thought of my interns, I thought of the hours spent on US 1, I thought of the sacrifices my colleagues made, I thought of the woman with no legs, and so many others I let down.

We left and had a few drinks nearby.  I spilled an entire Modelo™ on me – it was warm.  In those last four days, I had worked at least 64 hours.  I binge ate, and fell asleep on the floor while my remaining colleagues watched other states report in.

A little over two weeks later, I found myself on that drive back north.   It took longer than it should have; I got a little lost on the way.  Still am.